Yes, our e-mail system was started back in 1986 in Almviks Gård, Sweden, by the former Harikesa Swami, whose purpose was to improve communications within the BBT and his zone. Prsnigarbha das had adapted existing Swedish BBS software and soon "COM", as it was called, was up and running on a DEC PDP 11/45, a big and ancient 16-bit computer with 192 KB of memory and a 14 inch 160 MB Winchester harddisk.
The telephone lines in Almviks Gård were lousy, and calling in from other countries was difficult. So, in 1987 COM moved to Korsnäs Gård, the headquarters of the NE-BBT, where it got a total of five login modems plus about fifteen direct (serial) lines connected to terminals in the BBT offices.
Soon the PDP computer was replaced by an Intel 386 PC with a 300 MB harddisk (which was a monster capacity in those days), running XENIX as operating system. Three Datapak lines (X.25 packet switching network) were added. At the end of 1989, COM got its own Internet domain (bbt.se), and the software got adapted so that messages could be sent to and received from outside e-mail addresses. COM would dial up the Internet provider a few times a day and exchanged mail using the UUPC protocol. In those days, very few devotees had Internet access. The worldwide Internet big bang would come only about two years later.
Throughout all those years, Prsnigarbha das worked steadily on improving the software according to the directions of former Harikesa Maharaja, who promoted COM intensely and encouraged many of his godbrothers and disciples, often preachers or managers, to get on COM. When also other Swamis (not to forget Jayapataka Maharaja) started to inspire everyone to get on COM, it quickly became a very important means of communication for ISKCON worldwide.
In the middle of 1992 Prsnigarbha das was made the manager of a construction project near Stockholm and his service as SysOp (System Operator) of COM was transferred to Dharmaraja das. He still continued developing the COM software in his spare time, though.
In September 1992, Ramakanta das from Zürich, Switzerland, joined the COM programmers team and started working on porting the COM software to the DOS platform (with DesqView as multitasking software), because XENIX, although a true multi-user / multi-tasking system, had many disadvantages. Three months later, in the beginning of December 1992, COM was effectively running under DOS, on an Intel 486 (33 Mhz) with 16 MB of RAM.
LINK, the BBS of ISKCON Communications (at that time still in San Diego), had been using Wildcat BBS software (also DOS) so far, but now Mukunda Maharaja decided to switch over to the COM software, and some limited conference networking was set up between COM and LINK. Devaprastha das (at that time Bhakta Dave) was the SysOp.
In October 1993, Dharmaraja das, who also functioned as department head of the NE-BBT Typesetting and secretary to the former Harikesa Swami, could not devote enough time to COM and handed over the SysOp service to Raktambara das. Murari das (at that time just Madhava) in the US joined the team of programmers. He did a great job by adding many new features to COM in a relatively short time.
If you've been following attentively, you will remember that the COM BBS was now running on one 486 computer with 16 MB of RAM, hosting five modem lines, three Datapak lines, one Internet dial-up UUCP line, and about fifteen local terminal lines... As more and more users joined, both the hardware and DOS were loaded to the max. Moreover, the COM software had many bugs because the programmers involved could only work on it in their spare time, and nobody had had any time to go through the entire program code to eradicate all the bugs. Prsnigarbha das, who had been given other responsibilities, even resigned from the team of programmers altogether, as did Murari das. The situation became critical, the users got fried...
In June 1994 a major crash occurred that destroyed most of the text database (remember, it's a BBS), imploring Ramakanta das to take the systematic eradication of all COM bugs as his mission. At the same time, Raktambara das set up a coax ethernet LAN (Local Area Network) in the NE-BBT, which was also of great advantage to COM. The old COM computer was made into a Lantastic (Artisoft) server hosting the COM databases, and other client computers divided the various tasks: two 386'es answered the five modem lines, one 486 dealt with all the local terminal and Datapak lines, and another 386 did the Internet mail transfers.
With this new hardware setup and Ramakanta das gradually exterminating all the bugs, COM became faster and more reliable than it had ever been. Turbo login was added by starting the COM processes in advance and then having the users "drop into" the COM sessions. (Before that time, the login process alone took at least twelve seconds, which was a long time if you consider that most devotees were calling from abroad.)
In August 1994, features were added that allowed forwarding of COM mail to an external e-mail address on a regular basis, and for COM users to send in updumps (an updump contains mail to be sent, plus additional COM commands, e.g. commands to download files) through e-mail instead of having to call by modem. This relieved those COM users who did have Internet access from having to pay expensive phone bills.
In November 1994, Ista das started CIS COM in Moscow, the third COM node. It had one modem line.
Sometime in 1995, the Lantastic server software was replaced by Novell Netware software, which was a little faster.
Then suddenly, almost overnight, the Internet became widely and easily available to everyone. Murari das started a free World-Wide-Web version of COM, WWW-COM, with a very nice interface that attracted many devotees who simply wanted to read some conference mail here and there and occasionally write a letter. For devotees who had to cope with fairly big amounts of mail daily, however, it was too slow and thus impractical. These devotees remained with COM or LINK.
Since now COM allowed forwarding of mail to an external e-mail address, many devotees desired to join COM, and the number of COM users increased greatly in a short period of time. As every COM process keeps all user names in memory while running, DOS with its 640K program memory limitation quickly became unfit for hosting the COM software. A stable 32-bit operating system was required. The options back then were either OS/2 or Windows NT 3.5. Ramakanta das, a true kalpa-vrksa devotee, satisfied all SysOps by making COM versions for both OS/2 and NT 3.5 in an amazingly short time. COM chose for OS/2 and CIS for NT. Also, the COM hardware was upgraded (from 386'es and 486'es) to Pentium 75Mhz computers, and a 100Mhz Pentium database server, and COM became what was then considered blazing fast.
However, the users were still not completely satisfied. Especially the newcomers were complaining that the BBS command line interface to COM was old-fashioned and difficult to deal with, that one had to remember so many commands, etc. Murari das had already started working on an off-line reader program for DOS that would enable users to deal with their COM mail in a very convenient way, but he somehow lost inspiration and never finished it. Time was short, so Ramakanta das took over and started working on a Windows version, and soon WinCOM was born.
In October of 1996, LINK had a harddisk crash, and broken backups... They closed down forever, the two main reasons being that (1) LINK had had a hard time to survive economically, and (2) that LINK wasn't preferred any longer by American devotees, since COM did not charge subscription fees and they could get their COM mail forwarded to their local Internet provider.
In December of 1996, Raktambara and Ramakanta invented telnet login to COM, meaning that one could be on-line on COM (still a BBS) through one's local ISP (Internet Service Provider), instead of having to use modem or Datapak login. Because it was very costly and very hard to get a permanent connection to the Internet in the middle of the countryside (Grödinge, where the BBT is located), Raktambara das improvised a fixed connection over a normal phone line for the time being. This of course limited the total bandwith to a poor 28.8 kbps which had to be shared with all online users, but nevertheless telnet login quickly proved a great success.
The following months saw many versions of Ramakanta's WinCOM, the COM off-line reader, with an increasing number of features and the Address Book and Comfort add-on programmed by Raktambara das. In May of 1997, COM finally got a real Internet connection (128 kbps) for the e-mail transfers to and from the Internet as well as the Telnet logins. To soften the heavy investment a bit, the Datapak connections were canceled.
But... COM had always been a private system, with unwritten rules and regulations that differed considerably from the big Net out there. The massive gulf of new members from the US, often with ideas about COM being something like Usenet, had given rise to occasional clashes with the earlier, mostly European, members of COM. Several COM conferences died in such conflicts.
Due to the open structure of the Internet, the COM community and its SysOp now all of a sudden had to deal with things that never existed on COM before. Formerly, abusers were extremely rare and the filter file (yes, it has always been there) had only a handful of names in it for many years. Now, that filter file had become insufficient for dealing with the onslaught of unsolicited junk mail, hate mail and challenging propaganda pouring in from the Net.
Also, no address based filter file can cope with nowadays bulk e-mail software, which has stealth features and creates random sender addresses. In no time such a filter file would grow out to megabyte size, filled with non-existing addresses. Therefore a new type of filter was installed that scans incoming mail for foul language, bulk e-mail software signatures and typical get-rich-quick, MLM and snappy sales talk contents. Mail with such contents is either immediately discarded, or in case of doubt, ported to the SysOp for evaluation.
Late 1997, Raktambara das got fed up with the Novell server which was occasionally corrupting the COM database, and decided to run everything on one NT server. He got a new 200 MHz AMD with 128 MB RAM, NT Server 3.51, and fast SCSI harddisks (four harddisks giving a total capacity of 14 GB). This setup replaced the Novell server as well as the four 75Mhz Pentiums. As the database could now be accessed directly (instead of through a network), COM became considerably faster once more, but what was most important: one could finally call it a stable system.
In December 1997, Raktambara das started a second mail system called PRONTO. COM was no longer alone. PRONTO allowed devotees to deal with the outside world without any filtering. Membership was free, just as for COM. In February 1998, Ista das closed down CIS in Moscow due to financial strain. The NE-BBT agreed to adopt CIS. So, now there were three e-mail systems on one server, The Bhaktivedanta E-mail Systems. But they would not be called like that for very long...
In July 1998, Harikesa Swami, the founder and highest authority of COM for all these years, gave up his position as sannyasi as well as his responsibilities in ISKCON after a serious nervous breakdown. It was a difficult period for his disciples (and consequently for the NE-BBT) in all regards , but nevertheless COM continued to function without interruption.
Besides the above mentioned troubles, the BBT also became financially strained as the sankirtan scores in Europe dropped tremendously. It was hard to continue to sponsor an e-mail system that was actually mostly used by ISKCON members. Moreover, some GBC members showed great dissatisfaction with what was going on in certain COM conferences, and blamed it on the BBT. A BBT trustee noted: "I am not sure whether COM is working like a glue that helps hold the movement together, or like a solvent that helps melt it apart." A longwinded discussion entailed between BBT trustees, GBC members and the SysOps. Officially on February 1, 2000, an agreement was reached between the BBT and the SysOps where the BBT would sell the e-mail system to the SysOps.
We didn't want to keep spending the money. We didn't want the administrative hassle. We didn't want to get involved in social decision-making ("Should we allow X to be a user? Should we shut down conference Y?") We didn't want to set up and staff new bureaucracies. Nor, truth be told, did we want to be the sponsor for a huge traffic in aparadhas and prajalpa. In short, we wanted out.
To provide e-mail services for the preaching mission of ISKCON lies outside what Srila Prabhupada gave us as the "job description" for the BBT. In commercial language, we have divested ourselves of a complex, distracting, money-losing unit in order to focus on our core business.
So, COM was reborn as The Bhaktivedanta E-mail Services, with new private owners, a new Agreement, a new domain name PAMHO.NET, and yearly membership fees. But with the same mission of serving the e-mail and conferencing needs of sincere followers of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, be it in a more reconciling way.
(Not The End)
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